This has been the week of Caitlyn Jenner, and with good reason. Ever since Vanity Fair unveiled Caitlyn Jenner to the world, everyone in the news media, on Twitter, and on Facebook have been filled with messages of support and admiration for the former Olympian turned cover model. Everyone, that is, except religious conservatives and Snoop Dogg (gender politics make for strange bedfellows), who have heralded this moment as a “science experiment,” the “end of the world,” and the beginning of a “diabolic” age.
Jenner is a transgender woman, a Republican, and a Christian. At least two of those identifiers have a storied history: gender-bending Christian heroes are nothing new. This means the trans• community has no shortage of religious icons and, put simply, they’re pretty kick-ass.
First up, there’s Thecla: a young aristocratic woman who was engaged to be married when she first heard the teachings of the Apostle Paul. Inspired, she visited Paul in prison, where she scandalously kissed his chains (the hussy) before abandoning her family and fiancé to follow Jesus. Thecla cut her hair short and dressed as a man in order to travel and spread the good news. Maybe it was because she baptized herself in a pool of man-eating seals, maybe it’s because she was popular among young women, but Thecla became one of the most influential saints in early Christianity and celebration of her memory spread throughout Egypt and Asia Minor.
Then there’s Perpetua, one of the most famous early Christian martyrs in the ancient world. Perpetua, a new mother still nursing her child, was a convert who was arrested with other Christians before her baptism. While in prison, she had a sequence of prophetic dreams, one of which involved becoming a man and fighting an Egyptian in the arena. Just a dream, you say? Perhaps, but even once awake Perpetua acted in a way that was manly (as all ancient martyrs do). As Stephanie Cobb, author of Dying to Be Men and an expert on gender in martyrdom literature, writes of Perpetua: “Her femininity is nowhere to be found.”
Part of the reason for the masculinization of female martyrs is that Christians in general, and martyrs in particular, are expected to be courageous. When, for Latin-speakers, the words for “male,” “manly,” and “courageous” are nearly identical, it makes sense that courageous people—even women—are narratively depicted as manly.
This makes the story of our next saints—Sergius and Bacchus—all the more remarkable. Sergius and Bacchus were military men arrested for being Christians. During their trial they disavowed all knowledge of their legal wives and instead clung to one another for support. In an effort to humiliate the saints, the authorities had Sergius and Bacchus dressed as women. This attempt failed spectacularly. Rather than being ashamed, Sergius and Bacchus were overjoyed. They praised God for clothing them with the “garment of salvation,” saying, “as brides you have decked us with women’s gowns and joined us to you through our confession.”
Some of these saints are already queer icons. But when trawling our religious past looking for contemporary heroes, it’s important to note that just as practicing transvestism is not identical to being a transgendered person, ancient categories and practices don’t translate directly into our modern world. Some might protest that Thecla, Joan of Arc, and the whole host of female monks who dressed as men did so out of necessity and in order to protect their virtue, rather than out of choice or in keeping with their identity.
Moreover, understandings of sex and gender have changed just in the last 60 years, to say nothing of the last 2,000. Scientific theories of gender in the ancient world saw biological sex as inherently unstable. Male and female genitalia were, according to some theories, mirror images of one another (in the female body the anatomical instruments of procreation were seen as male genitalia sucked inside the body).
It’s for this reason that the ancient medical writer Galen tells a story of a girl hurdling a fence (a “manly” activity in the Roman Empire) only to feel her testicles drop out of her body—a much quicker, inadvertent, and, one assumes, less painful means of transitioning. The early Christian writer responsible for the Epistle of Barnabas (pro-tip: it’s not actually by Barnabas) warns his audience not to eat hyenas because they changed sex every year (second pro-tip of the sentence: hyenas do not change sex every year, but female hyenas do have enlarged clitorides, which can cause confusion).
As biological sex was unstable and could be altered, it was important for everyone to watch their practices. Too long in a hot bath, for example, could make the rock-hard male body feminine and squishy. It might seem ironic to us, but to some extent everyone had to work at conforming to their sex.
Those who find Caitlyn Jenner somehow distasteful or problematic may be conservative, but they are not old-fashioned. Ancient authors, even Christian ones, saw gender boundaries as porous, and effort was required to avoid crossing them. Today, many conservatives see gender as rigorously binding, and the crossing of gender boundaries as unnatural.
Caitlyn Jenner may not go down in history as a saint. But it would be nice if she could avoid being a martyr, too.